Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The Jesuits who survived the Bomb

The priests who survived the atomic bomb

The remarkable survival of the Jesuit Fathers in Hiroshima has echoes in the Bible and in the story of Fatima

By Donal Anthony Foley on Thursday, 5 August 2010

This Friday, August 6, will see the Feast of the Transfiguration celebrated in the Church. It commemorates the occasion when Christ, accompanied by Peter, James, and John, went up a high mountain – traditionally identified with Mount Tabor in Galilee – and was there “transfigured” before them, so that “his face shone like the sun, and his garments became as white as light” (Mt 17:2).

The Greek word for transfiguration is metemorphothe, from which we get the word “metamorphosis”. So the Transfiguration was a complete and stunning change in the appearance of Jesus, as his divinity shone through his humanity, in a way which completely overwhelmed the awestricken disciples. Its purpose was to prepare them for the reality of the crucifixion, so that having once seen – in some sense – his divinity, they would be strengthened in their faith.

August 6 is also an important date in world history: the fateful day on which the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima in Japan. On that day, a Monday, at 8.15 in the morning, an American B-29 bomber, Enola Gay, dropped its bomb “Little Boy”, which fell to a predetermined detonation height of about 1,900 feet above the city. It exploded with a blinding flash, creating a giant fireball, which vaporised practically everything and everyone within a radius of about a mile of the point of impact. It is estimated that up to 80,000 people were directly killed by the blast, and by the end of the year, that figure had climbed considerably higher, due to injuries and the effects of radiation. Over two thirds of the city’s buildings were completely destroyed.

But in the midst of this terrible carnage, something quite remarkable happened: there was a small community of Jesuit Fathers living in a presbytery near the parish church, which was situated less than a mile away from detonation point, well within the radius of total devastation. And all eight members of this community escaped virtually unscathed from the effects of the bomb. Their presbytery remained standing, while the buildings all around, virtually as far as the eye could see, were flattened.

Fr Hubert Schiffer, a German Jesuit, was one of these survivors, aged 30 at the time of the explosion, and who lived to the age of 63 in good health. In later years he travelled to speak of his experience, and this is his testimony as recorded in 1976, when all eight of the Jesuits were still alive. On August 6 1945, after saying Mass, he had just sat down to breakfast when there was a bright flash of light.

Since Hiroshima had military facilities, he assumed there must have been some sort of explosion at the harbour, but almost immediately he recounted: “A terrific explosion filled the air with one bursting thunderstroke. An invisible force lifted me from the chair, hurled me through the air, shook me, battered me [and] whirled me round and round…” He raised himself from the ground and looked around, but could see nothing in any direction. Everything had been devastated.

He had a few quite minor injuries, but nothing serious, and indeed later examinations at the hands of American army doctors and scientists showed that neither he nor his companions had suffered ill-effects from radiation damage or the bomb. Along with his fellow Jesuits, Fr Schiffer believed “that we survived because we were living the message of Fatima. We lived and prayed the rosary daily in that home.”

There is actually a biblical precedent for what happened to the eight Jesuits, in the book of Daniel. In Chapter 3, we read of the three young men who were thrown into the fiery furnace at the orders of Nebuchadnezzar, but who survived their ordeal and even walked around in the midst of the flames, accompanied by an angel who looked like “a son of the gods”.

After this first bombing, the Japanese government refused to surrender unconditionally, and so a second atomic bomb was dropped on the city of Nagasaki three days later on August 9. Nagasaki had actually been the secondary target, but cloud cover over the primary target, Kokura, saved it from obliteration on the day. The supreme irony is that Nagasaki was the city where two-thirds of the Catholics in Japan were concentrated, and so after centuries of persecution they suffered this terrible blow right at the end of the war.

But in a strange parallel to what happened at Hiroshima, the Franciscan Friary established by St Maximilian Kolbe in Nagasaki before the war was likewise unaffected by the bomb which fell there. St Maximilian, who was well-known for his devotion to the Blessed Virgin, had decided to go against the advice he had been given to build his friary in a certain location. When the bomb was dropped, the friary was protected from the force of the bomb by an intervening mountain. So both at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we can see Mary’s protective hand at work.

The apparitions at Fatima in Portugal took place in 1917, when from May to October three young children, Francisco and Jacinta Marto, and their cousin, Lucia dos Santos, saw the Blessed Virgin six times, culminating in the “miracle of the sun” on October 13, when 70,000 people saw the sun spin in the sky and change colour successively, before falling to the earth in a terrifying manner. Many of those present thought it was the end of the world, but the sun reassumed its place in the sky to great cries of relief.

The essence of the Fatima message concerns conversion from sin and a return to God, and involves reparation for one’s own sins and the sins of others, as well as the offering up of one’s daily sufferings and trials. There was also a focus on prayer and the Eucharist at Fatima, and particularly the rosary, as well as the Five First Saturdays devotion, which involves Confession, Holy Communion, the rosary and meditation, for five consecutive months with the intention of making reparation to Our Lady (for more details visit Theotokos.org.uk).

It’s interesting to reflect, then, on the theme of “transfiguration” which links these various events. Christ’s face shone like the sun on Mount Tabor, and at Fatima, Our Lady worked the great miracle of the sun to convince the huge crowd which had gathered there that the message she was giving to mankind was authentic. Consider, too, that the poor people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki suffered as man-made “suns” exploded in their midst causing horrific devastation. But at Hiroshima the eight Jesuits, who were living the message of Fatima, and particularly the daily rosary, were somehow “transfigured,” protected by God’s divine power, from the terrible effects of the bomb.

Surely there is a message here for all of us, that living the message of Fatima, in a world which grows ever more dangerous, and which is still threatened by nuclear war, is as profound a necessity for us as it was for Fr Schiffer and his companions

Friday, January 7, 2011

Russia Plans for a Stalinist Monument

Russia plans Stalinist monument
Thursday, 20 April 2006, 11:09 GMT 12:09 UK

Joseph Stalin: Still viewed with nostalgia by some Russians
A huge memorial featuring a statue of Soviet supreme ruler Joseph Stalin at its centre is to be rebuilt in a remote village in Russia's far north.
The memorial was built in Kureika near the Arctic Circle in the 1950s, at the height of Stalin's personality cult, by inmates of the Gulag prison system.

Officials in the region insist the new project is not politically motivated, but is aimed at developing tourism.

Critics say it is another sign that Stalin's crimes are being glossed over.
Alexei Babiy, a member of the Russian human rights group Memorial, said the project was part of a large-scale state campaign to rehabilitate Stalin.

The Kureika memorial, measuring 400 sq metres (4,304 sq ft), is to be rebuilt using original diagrams and photographs.

Stalin had spent time in Kureika during his internal exile under the tsarist regime later overthrown by the Bolsheviks.
The original memorial was closed in 1961, at the time of Nikita Khrushchev's drive to undo the worst Stalinist excesses, and in 1995 a fire virtually destroyed the dilapidated building.

An aide to the Krasnoyarsk regional governor, Yevgeny Pashchenko, told Interfax news agency that "this initiative came from businessmen who have long been involved in local tourism - it's a purely commercial project to attract tourists, it has no political overtones".

Russia's Itar-Tass news agency reports that demand has grown for tours to the sites of notorious Gulag labour camps.

An opinion poll carried out by Russia's VTsIOM research centre in March 2005 showed that 42% of Russians felt the country "needs another Stalin", compared with 52% who disagreed, Itar-Tass reported.

Stalin, who died in 1953, is revered by some Russians for his role as a war leader but reviled by others who point to the millions persecuted under his iron dictatorship.


Huge cross marks Stalin purges

Huge cross marks Stalin purges

The cross honours the memory of tens of thousands of Stalin's victims
A giant cross commemorating the victims of Stalinist purges in the 1930s has been erected at a ceremony near Moscow.
The wooden cross - 12.5m high (41 ft) and 7.6m wide (25 ft) - was placed in Butovo, at the site of a former execution ground.

At least 20,000 people were killed there by Stalin's secret police, the NKVD. The first killings occurred exactly 70 years ago.

Hundreds of people attended the ceremony south of the capital.
Events marking the 70th anniversary of Stalin's drive to purge opponents of his regime have been held throughout Russia.

The relatively small-scale ceremonies have been organised by religious or human rights groups rather than the government.

I was seven when my neighbour, a priest, was taken away - he disappeared without a trace

Yulia Shcherbakova, witness of the Stalinist repression
The BBC's James Rodgers in Butovo says the execution ground had previously been a firing range.

It did not seem necessary to change its name after 8 August, 1937, he adds.

Yulia Shcherbakova - now in her 70s - wanted to explain her personal tie to Stalin's terror.

"It's terrifying to think back. I remember people in our small house being arrested - people who lived below and above," she told the BBC.

"I was seven when my neighbour, a priest, was taken away - he disappeared without a trace. And everyone was afraid to mention his name."

Activists' fears

The Siberian pine cross was erected as a centrepiece to a new memorial to Stalin's victims in Butovo.

Orchestrated by Stalin in 1930s to cement his rule
5 Aug 1937 - order N00447 for mass executions of "anti-Soviet elements" issued
Targeted Communist Party opponents, but also the army, the intelligentsia and peasants
Hundreds of thousands of people executed by NKVD by 1938
Millions arrested and sent to labour camps
Mass executions end in Nov 1938, but arrests continue until Stalin's death in 1953
Those executed there in 1937 and 1938 included about 1,000 priests, monks and nuns.

No-one knows precisely how many are buried at the site.

The cross was constructed at the Solovetsky Monastery in northern Russia, which was itself turned into a notorious prison camp by the Soviet authorities in the 1920s.

The cross was delivered by boat, and part of its route followed the White Sea Canal, a Stalinist construction project which claimed the lives of thousands of convicts.

Seventy years after what is known as "the great purge", only a few thousand survivors remain.

Human rights groups say they have never been properly compensated, and most struggle to get by on a small state pension.


Stalin statue removed in Georgian home town

By Margarita Antidze

GORI, Georgia | Fri Jun 25, 2010 11:17am EDT

GORI, Georgia (Reuters) - Authorities removed a towering statue of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin from the central square of his native city in the dead of the night on Friday, carting away the monument to Georgia's most famous native.

The 6-meter-high bronze statue will be replaced by a monument to victims of Georgia's 2008 war with Russia and of Stalin's repression, officials said -- a rebuke to Moscow.

In an unannounced operation that began after midnight and was over before dawn, municipal workers and police took the statue down from its stone pedestal in the small city 80 km (50 miles) west of the capital, Tbilisi.

The statue's removal drew a mixed reactions in Gori, where it was erected a year before Stalin's death in 1953.

"How could they remove it? ... Stalin was a great individual and the most famous Georgian in the world," Irina, who gave only her first name, told Georgian public television.

"Stalin's monument was a symbol of our town," she said.

Outward signs of Stalin's pervasive personality cult were swept away after his death across Georgia and the rest of the Soviet Union, but he is revered by many in Gori.

Another resident, who identified herself as Maya, called it "the right decision. It's more logical to have a memorial to victims of war than a huge Stalin monument."

Widely reviled as a dictator responsible for millions of deaths, Stalin is held up as a hero by supporters across the former Soviet Union who say the country could not have defeated Nazi Germany or become a superpower without his leadership.

For many Georgians including pro-Western President Mikheil Saakashvili, the monument was a symbol of Moscow's lingering influence two decades after the small nation gained independence in the 1991 Soviet collapse. Resentment of Russia flared with the five-day war in August 2008.

"There is no place for such an ugly idol in Georgia," Culture Minister Nika Rurua said.

Officials said, however, that the monument would be moved to the courtyard of Gori's Stalin museum -- not discarded.

"A new monument dedicated to victims of the Russian aggression will be erected at this place," Zviad Khmaladze, a city council leader in Gori, said in televised comments.

Gori was the hardest-hit Georgian city in the 2008 war. Bombs hit the main square near the statue and buildings nearby.

The new monument will also commemorate victims of Stalin's repression, Rurua said.

The Kremlin is likely to bristle at a monument equating Russia's current leaders with Stalin, and the 2008 war -- which Moscow says was a morally justified response to Georgian aggression -- with the dictator's crimes.

Saakashvili praised the statue's removal when asked about it at a news conference.

"I support the decision of the municipality and the Culture Ministry completely, as a museum of occupation and monuments to those who orchestrated that occupation cannot exist in this country at the same time," Saakashvili said.

He was referring to a museum that opened in Tbilisi during his presidency on the years when Georgia was a Soviet republic.

Russian troops occupied Gori for two weeks after the 2008 conflict, which erupted when Georgia tried to recapture the Russian-backed separatist province of South Ossetia, just north of the city.

Russia recognized South Ossetia's independence after the war and has strengthened its grip on the rebel region.

Gori hosts some smaller statues and busts of Stalin as well as the museum dedicated to the late leader, who was born in Gori in 1879 and ruled the Soviet Union from 1924 until his death.

Mainly elderly supporters gather outside the colonnaded museum twice a year, on his birthday and the day of his death.

(Editing by Steve Gutterman and Myra MacDonald)